Dawn jostled her way past the injured to the back of the bus, right next to the lever to open the emergency exit. She figured that way she could throw it open for Buffy, who was sure to be the last one out. Or maybe she'd have to use it for Spike. Not that she'd forgiven him, or even liked him anymore, at all, but he was part of the team helping to fight the Uber-evil. She'd feel kinda bad if he went up in flaming death trying to make it to the front of the bus when she could have easily opened the back end for him.
She vibrated in place, scanning the remaining Slayers as they poured out of the abandoned high school and into the bus. Her fingers clenched the back edge of the seat, tight enough to have already torn through the fabric in more than one place, and she shivered from the awful mix of ramped-up adrenaline that no longer had an outlet, relief that she had made it out alive, and terror that Buffy was dead. Or soon would be.
The wait seemed interminable. But when Faith came running out of the cloud of dust, arms and legs no more than a blur, and yelled, "Go!" over the roar of the brand new high school exploding, Dawn knew they hadn't waited long enough. Buffy wasn't out yet.
Despite the lack of Buffy, the bus peeled away from the collapsing high school and Hellmouth, stench of burnt rubber mingling with the dust that had found its way into the bus.
"She'll be here," Xander said when Dawn protested, sparing her a smile in between tending to the wounded, but she saw it for the empty reassurance it was. Xander couldn't know that. He hadn't been down in the Hellmouth with Buffy anymore than Dawn had. He didn't know if her sister was even still –
"What makes you think she's alive?" somebody nearby said, voicing her question aloud.
"She is," Faith called from the front. "She was right behind me. She'll…" The Slayer grimaced as the bus fishtailed, back end catching dangerously on the encroaching crater.
"We gotta fly," Faith added under her breath to Robin, but Dawn had ears like a bat, or so a dismayed Buffy had claimed innumerable times over the years. "Put pedal to the metal. Unless you plan on making Sunnyhell your final resting place."
Robin didn't. The bus jerked forwards with an extra spurt of speed. Dawn scanned the road behind her, even though a still rational corner of her brain quietly whispered that it was futile. Buffy had been in the high school when it exploded. She'd still been inside when it had collapsed, sucked into the mouth of Hell. Nobody could have made it out alive.
Nobody except Buffy.
Dawn continued to scour the crumbling city for any sign of her sister, choosing to take heart in the others' flimsy reassurances. All she had now was faith, faith that whoever was in charge of this screwed-up universe wouldn't allow Buffy to die a second time. Or third, or fourth, depending on how you counted it.
And as they neared the outskirts of town, her impossible conviction was rewarded by a flying, sister-shaped shadow, and a jarring overhead thump that rocked the already unstable bus. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but Dawn thought she even heard a faint 'oof' over the roar of the bus and the crashing, groaning screams of the dying town receding behind them. Face pressed tight against the glass, she could just barely see what looked like the edge of red-tinted blade Buffy had been carrying peeking over the roof of the bus.
She let herself smile, even as the mouth of the crater leapt forward and caught the back tires again, causing the bus to swerve wildly. Buffy had made it out. Everything was going to be –
"No!" she screamed, and scrabbled at the emergency release. Her mind replayed what she'd seen in a sickening slow-motion loop – Buffy flying backwards, downwards, pinwheeling into the abyss like a broken doll, red blade clattering after her. The bus plowed forward, taking Dawn farther from her sister. "Stop! Stop it, stop the bus NOW!"
"Stop," Faith echoed what felt like lifetimes later. "We're clear."
The lurching, spinning halt slammed Dawn into the lever, and the door popped open and tumbled her out. They were scant yards from the edge of the crater, small rocks still shivering and slipping downward from the lip into the groaning depths. She didn't register the danger. Eyes fixed on the spot where she thought she'd seen her sister disappear, she sprang to the edge, ready to follow, only to be stopped by an arm like an iron band around her middle.
"Let me go! Buffy!" She beat at the arm and kicked wildly, and when the arm only tightened, she threw her head backwards. The resultant bash and crunch of her captor's face left her woozy, but the arm dropped and she flung herself forward. Dawn felt gravity take hold of her as she sailed over the edge, and then something snagged her hair and she slammed backward into a wall of sharp, broken pavement and rocks.
"Buffy!" she shrieked.
"Knock it off, kid," Faith said, her voice thick and congested.
"Buffy. Buffy is down there. Let me go or I'll kill you!"
Faith hauled her up by her hair and dropped her on the ground, none too gently. Dawn blinked against the pain. Willow and Xander's concerned faces swam over her.
"Dawnie," Willow said gently. "Buffy didn't make it out –"
"She did. I saw her, she was here, on top of the bus, and then she slid off. Right –" She flung her arm and pointed. "She's down there. It's not that – we can find her."
Willow and Xander looked out at the vast, groaning crater, then at each other, their expressions troubled and unsure. To the side, Faith hawked and spat. She cupped her bleeding nose and shook her head.
Why were they doing this? Just giving up?
Dawn crawled to the edge, knocking loose an avalanche of debris that she could hear rocketing down the slope long after it was out of sight. "She's down there. She's down there, maybe hurt and bleeding, and I am going to find her. So either help me." She pushed herself up, and glared into their concerned faces. "Or get. The. Fuck. Out of my way."
"We're not saying no," Xander said, hands up in a conciliatory gesture. The ground rumbled, and he threw his arms out to keep his balance. "If there's any chance, you know I'm the first one down there. But we gotta be smart about this. If you die trying to save her –"
Buffy will kill us.
She'll resurrect you and kill you all over again.
It'll kill her. If she's still alive.
Take your pick, Xander's unfinished sentence seemed to say.
Dawn grimaced. "Fine. Get ropes. And water –"
"We don't have ropes or water," Faith said. "What we do have is a busload of injured and dying girls. And Robin's not doing so hot either. Some of those girls are still alive, for the moment, but won't be for long. We need to get them to a hospital, pronto, not go running off on some wild goose chase."
Dawn rounded on her. "I know you don't care about my sister. You'd be more than happy to leave her for dead." She jabbed her finger towards the bus. "Get out of here. We don't need you anyway."
A warm hand fell on her shoulder. "Dawn," Giles said, the reproof evident underneath his mild, restrained tone.
"Buffy," she said. "She –"
"I heard. And we will search for her," he said with a determined look. "As Xander said, if there is any chance… The others are correct, however. A few moments of planning will save us much heartache. Somebody will need to take the injured on to the hospital while we search. Faith?"
To Dawn's surprise, Faith shook her head. "I'm going down. Only someone with Slayer strength is going to be able to navigate that shithole, 'specially with no ropes or climbing gear." Off Dawn's look she added, "Me and big sis ain't never gonna be besties, kid. But that doesn't mean I won't be first in line if she needs me."
Touching, Dawn thought snidely, but now wasn't the time to be questioning the other Slayer's newfound loyalty. "What supplies do we have?"
"I'll go have a look-see," said Xander. "Gather up whoever and whatever might be useful, and send the others on their way."
"I'll help," Faith said.
Dawn turned to Willow. "What about a locator spell? I've got..." She rooted through her pockets, then pulled out an dangly blue earring with a triumphant flourish. "Buffy's earring."
Willow reached for it, but her expression was less than promising. "I'll try my best. But I'm pretty tapped out, not to mention the shockwaves of badness that are rolling up out of the Hellmouth. I have a feeling they're going to interfere with any spells I try to cast."
The color drained from Giles' face. "The Hellmouth is still active? I rather thought – after –"
"Death throes," Willow said. The ground convulsed again, and she shuddered. "I can feel it dying. It's fainter out here, this far away, but…"
Giles surveyed the crater, his expression thoughtful. "The Hellmouth must've collapsed once the First was defeated. Or perhaps that amulet…"
"Spike…" Dawn breathed, her eyes stinging with sudden tears. Buffy was in definite trouble, but at least she'd made it part way out of the Hellmouth. There'd been no sign of Spike. Was it possible he was still alive, but trapped? If it turned out Willow could work her mojo, she'd insist they search for the vampire next.
Buffy would want that. Even if… no matter what, she'd want them to look for anyone else they might have left behind in their frantic escape. She'd probably insist on the gang searching for any other survivors first, before her, Dawn thought with a watery smile. But you're not here, so too bad. You're top priority.
The bus rumbled away, and Xander and Faith rejoined the group lining the rim of what used to be their hometown, along with Kennedy.
"Found this under a seat," Faith said, dropping a length of cable onto the ground. Xander added the depleted school bus first aid kit, a blood-stained blanket, and a bottle of Gatorade to the pile.
"It's not rope, but we can use it to lower people down. Or pull them up," Faith said, nudging the cable with her toe. She turned to peer over the edge. The ground juddered with an aftershock, and she took a steadying step backwards before leaning over again. "Which way are we headed?"
"Willow's going to try a locator spell," Dawn said.
Willow folded her legs and sat, eyes closed and fingertips resting lightly on the ground. "Giles," she said after several tense seconds. "I need you."
Giles joined her on the ground and took her hands. Fists clenched, Dawn silently added her own force of will to Willow's low chant.
When the earring began to rise, spinning slowly in a jerky circle, she held her breath. The blue beads glowed with an otherworldly light, and Dawn clenched her fists tighter.
The earth shook, and the earring slammed to the ground with a pop, wisps of smoke curling upward. More debris tumbled into the crater. Willow's head slumped. "Can't," she rasped. "Maybe… maybe in a bit."
"Looks like we're up," Faith said with a nod to Kennedy. She slung the cable over her shoulder and turned to Dawn. "Point us in the right direction, small fry."
Stomach roiling, Dawn picked her way back to the jutting overhang of asphalt and gave in to the nightmare vision of Buffy pinwheeling into the widening maw. She let it loop through her mind while she tried to match the disappearing landmarks of her vision to the devastation below.
"There." She pointed to a spot that, had the ground beneath it not caved away, would have been no more than a ten minute walk. The twisted remnants of several old building just to the left of where she'd pointed shifted and slithered deeper into the earth. Listening to the creaks and thumps of the still settling crater that had replaced her hometown, Dawn knew it would likely take closer to ten hours for Faith and Kennedy to reach the same spot, even with Slayer strength and speed.
If they could reach it at all.
Buffy had made it out of the high school and to the bus despite impossible odds. Dawn could only pray that same faith that had already bought her a miracle was strong enough for two in one day.
Static crackle from the walkie-talkie Kennedy had dropped in her lap hours earlier jerked Dawn awake. She wiped the crusted spit from the corner of her mouth and croaked out, "Hello? Kennedy?"
"Are we still going in the right direction?" came the tinny reply.
Dawn shuffled to the edge, searching for the faint glow of flashlight that marked the Slayers' location deep within the darkened pit below. "I – I think so."
Between the lack of light necessary to pinpoint landmarks and the amount of time that had passed, Dawn wasn't sure of anything anymore. Faith and Kennedy's original attempts to climb down into the crater had been unsuccessful. The ground had been too unstable, and they'd had to give up.
Dawn had refused to listen to reason. Her obstinate solo rescue attempt after the others had abandoned the effort had lasted all of a half hour, until she'd sprained her ankle and had to be hauled back to the rim by a very pissed off Faith.
After that, the small group had set up a makeshift camp under the old blanket and shared around the single bottle of Gatorade, waiting for the backlash from the Hellmouth to die out so Willow could perform the locator spell.
Three days later, they were still waiting.
Andrew had returned with the bus several hours later, bringing food and water, and more gear. Soon after, there'd been an attempt to locate Buffy with a rented helicopter, but it had failed. Dawn couldn't quite recall what she'd done when the others had suggested the helicopter pilot turn back, but she was fairly certain she was better off not remembering.
For the next two days, they'd camped out on the side of the road, until the shifting rubble had somewhat stabilized and Faith had decreed it safe enough for another attempt. The others had occupied themselves during the wait with various excursions to the next town over to gather more supplies and check on Robin and the girls in the hospital, but Dawn hadn't been able to bear the thought of leaving, no matter how pointless her vigil. Xander had suggested she go with Andrew and try to get some sleep at a motel that first night, but after her emphatic and explicit response, nobody had dared suggest anything similar since.
"Hey! Hey! Guys –"
Dawn turned. Willow, hunched beside an electric lantern, was staring intently at a map of Sunnydale spread out on the ground.
Limping as quickly as she could, she hurried to join the small group that had congregated around the witch.
"It almost worked!" Willow gestured to the diffuse, twinkling fairy lights hovering over the map. "Soon, Dawnie. Not yet, but soon. Another few hours, maybe?"
Dawn collapsed to the ground, relief and hope making her head spin. "Oh God."
Xander knelt beside her, and she buried her head in his shoulder. The warm comfort of strong arms surrounded her, and it was a long time before she realized the shushing, soothing noises he was making were aimed at her.
She dried her eyes on his shirtsleeves, but felt too limp and wrung out to move out of his embrace. As the sister of the Slayer, and a magical Key hunted by a crazed Hellgod, Dawn had been in her share of hopeless situations. But she'd never felt so lost, so useless and helpless, as she had these last few days.
If it had been the other way around, Buffy would have saved her by now. Her sister would have stopped at nothing.
And Dawn had failed her.
Still buried in Xander's arms, face half-hidden by the hair plastered to her tear-stained face, she heard herself whisper into the heavy silence, "But what if we're too late?"
Giles sighed, and Dawn could hear the soft rustling that meant he was polishing his lenses. "Buffy is the strongest Slayer – strongest person – I have ever met. If anybody could have survived…"
"We'll find her." There was no hesitation in Xander's voice. "Between Willow's witchy mojo and our Slayer-powered rescue squad, it's only a matter of time."
Willow reached for her hand. "Soon, okay? I know it's hard to wait. Not being able to do something is the worst."
Dawn nodded, and the group fell silent once more. Somewhere on the far side of Sunnydale, car lights flared, small pinpricks of light shining through the darkness.
"Think they found anything?" Xander said, returning to a topic of conversation that had occupied their waiting hours over the past few days. A number of cars, emergency vehicles, and trucks had approached the crater from various directions since the collapse. There had even been the occasional flyovers from news helicopters and other small aircraft. On their own road to nowhere, they'd had a few looky-loos, and a parade of rescue workers who had determined the conditions too dangerous to do any rescuing, much to their dismay.
The lack of visitors worried about friends and family had puzzled them for a while, until Faith had pointed out that anybody with good sense – in other words, everybody but their ragtag army – had abandoned Sunnydale days earlier.
Dawn stared at the receding taillights, until she couldn't see them anymore. "Do you think there's anybody else alive down there? Besides Buffy?"
Her head rose and fell with Xander's heavy exhalation. "Most everybody else's… passing… is accounted for," he reminded her.
When Andrew had returned with the bus and supplies, he'd spoken of Anya's final minutes. Dawn had already known, somewhere deep inside, that Anya was gone. She suspected Xander had too, but he'd still taken it hard. They all had.
Between Faith and Kennedy, the whereabouts of all the Potentials, dead or alive, had been verified.
Other than Buffy, the only unknown was Spike. Willow had promised to try a locator spell once they were working again, but after Faith had described the effects of the amulet, Dawn had had to accept that he probably hadn't survived. The only person they had any chance of rescuing was Buffy.
Dawn closed her eyes and sent up another silent prayer for her sister's life.
Don't take her away from me again. I can't lose her. Not again.
The walkie-talkie crackled into life.
"We found something," Faith said. "It looks like part of Buffy's jacket."
Dawn's fingers turned numb. The radio slipped out of her grasp and clattered to the ground.
Giles retrieved it. "Are you certain?"
"No," Faith said, and Dawn had to bite the inside of her cheek to hold back the screams bubbling up from deep inside. "All we've got is a bloody bit of fabric that was caught on a piece of rebar. But if it is part of her jacket, it means we're on the right track. You know? We're going to look around, see if we can find anything else."
"Very good. Er – copy."
After that, the sitting and waiting seemed even more interminable. Dawn paced the edges of their camp, hobbling back and forth while she chewed her knuckles and resisted the urge to pester Faith and Kennedy for continuous updates. The Slayers would let them know when – if – they found something.
Hold on, Buffy, she thought. Just hold on. We're coming for you.